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Throughout all the political and racial unrest of 2020, DeJuana Thompson became an unstoppable on-the-ground force who empowered Black and brown communities to vote and to stand up against injustice.
That effort isn’t surprising coming from a woman whose love of activism was molded under the mentorship of multiple Black leaders such as voting rights legend John Lewis and entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte. But her first mentors were her parents who taught her the importance of community involvement, which was also shaped by Thompson’s church life.
“We used to say, ‘You are going to serve and do something at church whether you wanted to or not,’” Thompson said.
Thompson’s dedication of servitude stretches beyond the church pews. Before Thompson was named interim president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Monday, she galvanized Black millennial and faith-based voters through her nonprofit Woke Vote. To date, the organization has engaged 2 million Black voters and trained more than 5,000 social justice leaders.
“We don’t just exist for one moment. We’re trying to teach people and give them a culture of engagement. A culture of activism. A culture of civic responsibility so that they can apply that throughout their own,” Thompson said.
Woke Vote provided a wide range of services that kept Thompson in high gear last year, including partnering with Be A Blessing Birmingham to ensure homeless people received their stimulus checks as well as touring nationwide for voter engagement drives for the presidential election and Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff. The nonprofit also partnered with local organizers during the aftermath of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I’ll never stop working on behalf of the Breonnas, the Ahmauds, the Georges, the Sandras, the Tamirs because the conditions that made their stories possible are still so prevalent,” Thompson said.
Thompson showed up in all of these spaces while also working for her global social impact firm Think Rubix because Woke Vote isn’t her paid gig. The distress of it all manifested in multiple ways, including weight gain, spiritual turmoil in response to the racial trauma and lack of rest. Weekend breaks were very rare between November 2019 and January 2021. At one point, she worked five months straight without a break at all.
“By Feb. 2, I turned to my business partner and I said, ‘I literally have nothing else to do. Like, my brain is gone. I have nothing and I have to take a significant break,’” Thompson recalled.
Thompson found peace in her passport. She packed her bags and dedicated herself to embark on “mini sabbaticals” this year starting with a two-week journey in Dubai and Jordan in mid-February.
She visited the Dead Sea and Red Sea of Jordan and explored the beauty of the lost city of Petra – one of the seven wonders of the world. She brought church to herself as she prayed read at Mount Nebo, where Moses ascended to view the Promised Land. She scratched off an item on her bucket list after glamping in the middle of the Wadi Rum Desert.
“Traveling reminds me that we are all interconnected,” Thompson said. “What I’m experiencing, I’m not alone in those experiences. This human experiment is something that we’re all going through together.”
Traveling has always been a love language for Thompson. When she graduated from high school in Birmingham, she organized a trip to the Bahamas for her senior class.
A proud global citizen, Thompson’s travels has stretched across the world over the years and she has seen five of the seven wonders of the world. Some of her favorite spots are Florence, Italy, Ghana and Cuba.
“On of my favorite scriptures says, ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,’” Thompson said. “Well, if God has given us this Earth to be on, and he has created all these things, I want to see it. I want to experience it. I want to see the fullness of it.”
She wants everyone to experience the peace of a retreat. Later this year, Thompson plans on unveiling a retreat program called “Sabbatical Noir,” which as inspired by conversations with Birmingham native and activist Angela Davis about the places Davis would visit when she really needed to focus on writing or strategizing. After conducting more research, Thompson learned that many of her favorite leaders also listed their favorite getaways where they would go to revive themselves.
Thompson will use this research to create the experiences for “Sabbatical Noir,” which she plans to launch soon for Black people who may not have stopped working since they graduated from high school.
“It’s revolutionary for us to take rests, because people don’t believe that we should do that,” Thompson said. “Especially as young Black professionals. They just expect you to work to until you die.”
Thompson, who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Morocco with friends, said the main goal of her trips is to fill her own cup.
“When I’m at my destination, it’s really to have an experience and to be reinspired,” she said. “That way, when I come back and I’m here to serve, I’m all in. I’m here. I’m not stressed. I’ve done what I need to do to satisfy myself and to feel whole so that I feel ready to pour into others.”